I have always believed that Walter Hopps was born ahead of the curve, and he was still out there, ahead of us, when he died of pneumonia in Los Angeles on March 22 at 72.
Born in Los Angeles in 1933, Hopps fell in love with modern art when he saw Walter and Louise Arensberg’s collection. When he was a student at UCLA, still a teenager, he and two friends opened the Syndell Studio, and presented one-man shows of works by Craig Kaufman and Ed Kienholz.
In 1954, he mounted the first exhibit of West Coast Abstract Expressionism in the Carousel on Santa Monica Pier. When I suggested to him years later that it seemed, at least, an unlikely setting, he said that it was the cheapest site he could find and that he wrapped the merry-go-round in canvas to create a kind of drum, hung the paintings on the canvas, and slowed the merry-go-round down to a crawl.
The last show Hopps curated is a retrospective of George Herms’ works, which is currently at Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Between those two Santa Monica benchmarks, Hopps did just about everything a man of such unorthodox talent can do, and, in my view, the secret of his success was that he loved artists – their work, their ways and their company, and devoted his life to opening doors to and for them.
Roberta Smith of the New York Times put it more simply. Hopps, she wrote, “was famous for groundbreaking exhibitions, inspired installations and an empathy with living artists, many of whom he helped push to the forefront of the art world.”
In 1957, Hopps and Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery, which immediately became the center of a new Los Angeles art scene, showing the work of such emerging artists as Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. In 1959, he began curating exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum and became its director in 1962.
Among his more spectacular achievements in Pasadena were the first American retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, and the first museum survey of American Pop Art.
When he left Pasadena, he became a kind of itinerant curator/museum director, he told me, wandering from one prestigious museum to another, inevitably doing splendid work as a curator, but flopping as an administrator.
Specifically, according to Smith, “Throughout much of his career Mr. Hopps was also known for his eccentric work habits, his mysterious disappearances and an autocratic manner that caused conflicts with museum boards, even while his curatorial imagination inspired fierce loyalty in many of his colleagues. But detractors and admirers alike agreed that the quality of his curatorial work rarely faltered.”
Then, in 1980, he found a kindred spirit or patron in Dominique de Menil, a French-born Houston art collector, who wanted to build a museum for her collection of modern, ancient, African and Byzantine art. Hopps helped choose the architect Renzo Piano to design what is now generally seen as one of the premiere museums in the world.
Hopps was director of the Menil from its opening in 1987 to 1989, when, he told me, he demoted himself to curator of 20th-century art. Among his more notable exhibitions were the works of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. He organized a Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996, a second Rauschenberg retrospective (with Susan Davidson) at the Guggenheim Museum and the Menil in 1997, and a James Rosenquist retrospective (with Sarah Bancroft) at the Guggenheim in 2003.
In 2001, the Menil established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, with a cash prize of $15,000.But it’s hard for me to imagine anyone living up to Hopps, because, ultimately, he was a work of art himself.